Colin Firth and The King’s Speech

MV5BMzU5MjEwMTg2Nl5BMl5BanBnXkFtZTcwNzM3MTYxNA@@__V1__SY314_CR0,0,214,314_Every Jane Austen fan remembers her first time.  Reading Pride and Prejudice, that is.  Still I’ll never forget the first time I saw the BBC TV mini-series of Pride and Prejudice, the 1995 Simon Langton version so perfectly executed that the film adaptation gods must have wept when they watched it.  Days later, I popped my mother’s copy of the 1940 Robert Leonard adaption into the VCR, anxious to watch the great Laurence Olivier in the role of my latest favorite fictional fella, Mr. Darcy.  But Olivier’s portrayal sent me running back into the arms of my beloved BBC version, desperate to find the name of the actor that made Olivier look like a wuss.  Who was the actor that made one of the most distinguished British actors of history appear as a weak and timid sap?  It was Colin Firth.  

Since the late 1990s, Firth has been one of the most popular British actors in film, despite never being in a Harry Potter movie.  His first film credit was in 1984 for a role in Another Country, but he didn’t really make his mark until 1995, over a decade later, when he landed his first role as Mr. Darcy.  After that, Firth was popping up all over the place—Circle of Friends, The English Patient, Shakespeare in Love—but always as a supporting character.  Now, at 50, he is finally receiving more attention as a leading actor, which begs the question: why now?  In 2010, Firth was nominated for an Oscar for Best Performance by an Actor in a Leading Role for his portrayal of George Falconer in A Single Man.  Last month, Entertainment Weekly named him “the man to beat,” expecting him to receive his second Oscar nod in two years for his role as King George VI in The King’s Speech.  Perhaps it would be an overstatement to claim that Firth has been overlooked in the past; he has certainly had his share of flops (Mamma Mia! and The Accidental Husband come to mind).  Nevertheless, Firth’s recent film choices suggest that not only is he “the man to beat,” he is the man to keep an eye on. 

Pride and Prejudice was the film that established Colin Firth’s star persona—serious, proud, intellectual, dignified, even snobbish.  Unsurprisingly (or consequently), his film characters often share these same qualities—Simon Westward in Circle of Friends, Geoffrey Clifton in The English Patient, Lord Wessex in Shakespeare in Love, Henry Dashwood in What A Girl Wants, and Richard Bratton in The Accidental Husband.  His role as Mark Darcy in Bridget Jones’s Diary and Bridget Jones: The Edge of Reason merely updated Mr. Darcy’s character to the 21st century (just as Renee Zellweger brought Elizabeth Bennet to 2001 London).  Colin Firth doesn’t just play Mr. Darcy; he is Mr. Darcy, and perhaps his recent film choices are reflecting a desire to separate himself from the character. 

In A Single Man (directed by Tom Ford), Firth brilliantly plays the polished and intellectual George Falconer, an English college professor who must cope with the death of his much younger partner.  In a departure from his typical roles (this is definitely one of his riskier films), Firth perfectly captures the heartrending truths of mourning and grief.  Owen Gleiberman of Entertainment Weekly, in his review of A Single Man, put into words what the rest of the film-going world was thinking: “Colin Firth is an intensely likable actor, but in every movie I’ve ever seen him in he is always…Colin Firth, witty, diffident, with that resignation hanging over his every grin and grimace.  In A Single Man, though, I felt as if I were seeing him for the first time.”  With 2008’s Mamma Mia! still fresh in our memories, we were shocked by his nuanced performance of a homosexual man in 1962 America.

More than just a film about a grieving man, A Single Man provides social commentary of an “invisible minority.” After the sudden death of his partner, George realizes that he has no other real relationships (this is the 60s, he can’t just announce to the world that he’s gay), and even his great friendship with Charly (played by the remarkable Julianne Moore) is full of tension.  The film’s comparatively little dialogue merely allows Firth to embody the character more fully, and we see his Oscar-worthy acting in the subtle changes of his expressions and in the delicate care George takes in preparing for his suicide. 

Without question, A Single Man was a giant step in the right direction for Firth, if he was seeking an Oscar.  The subtle and artistic film is a kind of second arrival on the film scene for Firth, who was in many ways resting on Mr. Darcy’s laurels from Pride and Prejudice and both Bridget Jones films.  In fact, George Falconer could not be any more different from Mr. Darcy, except, perhaps, in his love of literature.  So we must ask, have we become so used to Firth playing Mr. Darcy that anything new is refreshing? 

The King’s Speech is refreshing, not just for Firth, but for all film audiences accustomed to the cold portrayals of British royalty.  The film (directed by Tom Hooper) takes us back to England in the years between World Wars I and II.  Thanks to radio, monarchs and political leaders can no longer sit in an office to rule the world in peace; they must regularly address world through radio broadcasts.  The film begins as the Duke of York (Colin Firth) addresses a large stadium on behalf of his father, King George V.  Public speaking is not his forte, not because of fear of an audience, but because of an unconquerable stutter.  The subject of his speech is irrelevant; no one can focus on anything other than the stammer.  The echo in the arena only exaggerates his stutter, sounding mercilessly like sinister laughter.   

Despite countless attempts to overcome his speech impediment, the Duke (lovingly called Bertie by his family and speech therapist) resigns himself to the fact that he will always have a stammer.  This truth does not signify too much, since Bertie believes that he is safely beyond the chance of ever becoming king (his older brother, Edward, is next in line).  But after his father’s death and his brother’s abdication (the film surpasses Wikipedia as a brief history lesson of British government), Bertie finds himself in the unexpected role of king and must rely more heavily on his unconventional speech therapist to present himself as an image of authority in the early days of World War II. 

The King’s Speech deserves academy recognition solely because it is one of the few films this year that is devastatingly beautiful to look at, with its gorgeous pale blues and greens and the  elegant set design of the palaces.  The supporting cast, which includes Geoffrey Rush (as the speech therapist Lionel Logue) and Helena Bonham Carter (as Queen Elizabeth), superbly balances the drama and humor of the film.  But the bulk of the praise must go to Firth, who takes possession of his role—indeed takes possession of the whole film—in a way that he has not done in any of his earlier work.  More than anything else, he brings humanity to the royal family (even more than Helen Mirren in The Queen), comprehending Bertie’s roles as husband, father, Duke, and eventually king. 

Firth effortlessly controls his performance, avoiding the traps of schmaltz and dramatic overkill.  He does not over-play the heartbreaking moments of the film (which of course makes these scenes even more tragic), such as when he struggles to tell his daughters a bedtime story or when he sings about how he was abused by his nanny (Logue encourages Bertie to sing his sentences to defeat his stutter).  Throughout the film, Logue insists that he and his patients must be equals in order for his methods to work.  But in the course of the story, Bertie (and by extension Firth) becomes our equal, allowing us to see the British king as an authentic, sympathetic, and human character.  If Firth doesn’t win the Oscar for that, then the academy will be hearing from me. 

So what makes Firth the new leading-man of choice for films about middle-aged men?  Well, for starters, he is still very popular with the female audiences.  Second, despite his flops, Firth has proven that he can handle different kinds of roles, from serious parts (Girl With the Pearl Earring) to funny roles (The Importance of Being Ernest) to characters in children’s films (Nanny McPhee).  Firth himself weighed in on the question during an interview with Entertainment Weekly’s Dave Karger (who described the actor as “the thinking woman’s heartthrob”), stating, “The stories about men my age are rather interesting.  They have a past.  Maybe I’ve been given an opportunity which has perhaps invited me to raise my game.” 

We can expect to see Firth raising his game and exercising his versatility in his upcoming thrillers of 2011, Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy and The Promised Land (where he will work with fellow Mr. Darcy, Matthew MacFayden).  More importantly, we can see Firth in the roles of writer, director, and producer in his 2010 documentary The People Speak UK, a film about various moments of dissent and rebellion in British history.   At an age when most actors are slowing down and taking on less roles, he is expanding into various aspects of the film industry.  Nevertheless, we can look forward to great things from the actor, as long as he continues to challenge himself with complex, humanist roles.  Now, if only I could look beyond Firth as Mr. Darcy in his more recent films: Mr. Darcy as spy, Mr. Darcy as king, Mr. Darcy as ABBA fanatic.  

Directed by Tom Hooper; written by David Seidler; director of photography, Danny Cohen; edited by Tariq Anwar; original music by Alexandre Desplat; production design by Eve Stewart; produced by Iain Canning, Emile Sherman and Gareth Unwin; released by the Weinstein Company. Running time: 1 hour 58 minutes.

With: Colin Firth (King George VI), Geoffrey Rush (Lionel Logue), Helena Bonham Carter (Queen Elizabeth), and Guy Pearce (King Edward VIII).

Review by Melissa Cleary

Blue Valentine

blue valentineIf you’ve heard anything about Derek Cianfrance’s Blue Valentine, it was probably in the context of the MPAA’s laughable decision to stick the film with the dreaded NC-17 rating (since reversed to a still-too-harsh R), or maybe you have a bearded, plaid-loving friend who keeps gushing about Grizzly Bear writing the film’s score (as a Grizzly Bear fan, I can say that this is, at the very least, just as cool as Daft Punk scoring Tron), but what you really should know is that it is the best American film of 2010 (so far). I want to clear up the MPAA issue early, so I can devote the rest of this article to the film itself. There is nothing, and I mean absolutely nothing, in this film that comes even remotely close to deserving the NC-17 rating, which would mean a virtual ban from theaters and from television advertising. There are a few moments of nudity, occasional cursing and a more realistic view of sexuality than you’d find in a PG film, but if you had told me that it was rated PG-13, I would not have been that surprised. The only offensive thing here is that an organization as contradictory and backward thinking as the MPAA is still allowed to have such an impact on what movies we see in America.

Ryan Gosling and Michelle Williams play Dean and Cindy, a married couple at the end of their relationship. They have a daughter, and they’ve likely stayed together so long because of her, but the film follows the final events leading to the dissolution of their marriage, interspersed with flashbacks to their first meeting and other major events. It opens at their rural home, as the clearly strained family tries to find their missing dog, a search that does not end well. Cindy and Dean both clearly love their daughter, but it’s quite clear from the opening scene that something is wrong with their relationship. When they met in Brooklyn, Cindy was an idealistic med student and Dean was a goofy, but artistically talented and charismatic, mover who meets Cindy in a nursing home. In the flashbacks, we follow them from the first date through their marriage, and it is through these scenes that we understand why their relationship failed. Cindy’s parents and grandparents all suffered through lifelong loveless relationships, turning her against the whole idea. Dean’s mom left when he was a kid, and he just wants to find something to love that he can hold on to for the rest of his life. Between the day they were married (the end of the flashbacks) and the one brutal day that makes up the present in the film, we have to infer that things have gone wrong. Dean’s potential has led nowhere, he paints houses, but he, at least, is happy because the job allows him to spend time with his family. Cindy has failed as a doctor and now earns her living as a very stressed nurse. She is miserable because all of the promise they once had is seemingly gone, and she cannot accept her current lifestyle. She runs into an ex on the way to the one-night motel where Dean is trying to save the marriage, and she tells him that she’s “been here, stayed here, never left here,” the bitterness in her tone explaining everything you need to know about her situation.

Now, because of the temporally shifting romance and breakup and the hipster-friendly soundtrack, some have seemingly been compelled to compare it to last year’s 500 Days Of Summer, which is a disservice. I enjoyed that film for what it was, but Blue Valentine is a far better film in nearly every regard. Not only is it a better looking movie with some of the most realistic and frank dialogue in any film you’ll ever see instead of the annoyingly twee indie-speak that replaced human dialogue in the other film, but it features two of the best actors of our generation at the absolute peak of their respective careers. Most of Cindy and Dean’s problems, at least early in the film, are not outwardly articulated, but the two stars bring such an impressive degree of emotional intensity to their roles that all of their issues are completely clear. Each deserves every award-season accolade that they will no doubt receive in the next few months, but credit also has to go to the director. Cianfrance’s use of hand-held cameras and the film’s extreme emotional intensity will undoubtedly draw well-deserved comparisons to Cassavetes (and maybe some will note the irony that Gosling’s big break came in a pretty lousy film directed by the indie god’s actual son). Visually, Blue Valentine is quite pleasing, with very strong colors and a near-constant shallow focus, usually leaving only one character in the foreground. Notably, the constant shaky cam never gets in the way of the composition, which in my mind is the biggest risk directors run when they use that technique. The most important aspect of the film is the level of emotional rawness present in every single scene. Even though it spends roughly two hours focused on these two people, it never grows boring because every scene is cackling with energy, the result of a truly talented young director working with a really wonderful cast. The music by Grizzly Bear adds another layer of brilliance to the film, perfectly accentuating every scene in which it is used, but never calling too much attention to itself. Much of the score is made from pieces of their older songs, particularly “Foreground,” which serve the film’s mournful tone and Brooklyn setting quite well. I believe there were a few new pieces in there, but those expecting a new album’s worth of material may leave disappointed. I was quite satisfied with the music, and for my money, the only way they could have improved the score to Blue Valentine would have been to throw in some tracks off of the underrated Tom Waits album of the same name, which probably would have fit pretty well amidst all the melancholy.

Most films dealing with divorce tend to take one side of the issue. It’s not always a conscious decision by the writer or director, but you can always see that one side is being presented as “right” and the other as “at fault.” To use an example I watched recently, in Redford’s Ordinary People, there is some discussion of the Donald Sutherland character’s problems, but in the end almost all of the blame is laid at the feet of Mary Tyler Moore’s character. Neither is a particularly deep personality, which allows the director and audience to simply go with their surface criticisms of the wife. In Blue Valentine, both characters are so complex and well-rounded that Cianfrance is actually able to avoid this classic problem by making his audience understand that nobody is completely at fault, and that the forces of the outside world and the American dream can cause the end of even the most loving relationship. In doing so, he questions the possibility of the long-term relationship in today’s world. There is not a single example of a working, happy couple on screen except for the flashbacks of Dean and Cindy. At the very least, it seems to encourage the philosophy that marriage is an archaic institution that does not work today. Or maybe, to quote the song Dean sings on the first date, it is saying, “You always hurt the ones you love,” and that love is an inherently painful process, but there is something good in the end. Either way, this is an emotionally gripping, aesthetically impressive tour de force that should not be missed when and if it comes to your city.

-Adam Burnstine

Blue Valentine is rated R for “Strong graphic sexual content (which doesn’t actually exist in the film), language (minimal) and a beating (there are about six punches thrown total, and there is no violence against women).”

It opens in New York and LA on December 31st, and will come out in Boston some time in January.

Directed by Derek Cianfrance; written by Derek Cianfrance, Joey Curtis and Cami Delavigne; director of photography, Andrij Parekh, edited by Jim Helton and Ron Patane; music by Grizzly Bear; art director, Chris Potter; produced by Ryan Gosling, Michelle Williams, Lynette Howell, Alex Orlovsky and Jamie Patricof; distributed by The Weinstein Company; run time 2 hours.

With: Ryan Gosling (Dean), Michelle Williams (Cindy), Faith Wladyka (Frankie), John Doman (Jerry), Mike Vogel (Bobby) and Ben Shenkman (Sam Feinberg).

Vision: From the Life of Hidegard von Bingen

MV5BMzUxMjQ5MTk5NV5BMl5BanBnXkFtZTcwMTczMjI3Mw@@__V1__SY314_CR0,0,214,314_Film lovers and critics must expect to receive a certain amount of grief for their taste in movies, but there is a different kind flak awaiting the cinephile who loves a good foreign flick.  Americans hate foreign things, especially foreign films.  Just try asking a friend to go to a foreign film, and you will probably hear this reply: “When I see a movie, I want to watch it, not read it.”  It is precisely this American mentality that makes it difficult for foreign films to find their way to our theaters.  How much more difficult it must be for a foreign film about a medieval nun to find an American audience!  Margarethe von Trotta’s Vision: From the Life of Hildegard von Bingen manages to draw a crowd, though a small one, with its jolting camera movements and creative depiction of the Catholic saint. 

Hollywood has certainly had its share of movies with nuns (The Bells of St. Mary’s, Lilies of the Field, and Doubt—to name a few), but von Trotta’s Vision is so decidedly un-Hollywood (yes, a foreign film may be described as such) that one may feel overwhelmed by its numerous themes and complex narrative.  The German film is a biography of Hildegard von Bingen, a medieval nun (played by Barbara Sukowa) who not only studied medicine, healing, music, and invented the morality play, but also received visions from God.  The film begins in a dark room, full of sorrowful people gathered around an altar while a priest informs them that they will never see another sunrise as it is the last day of the first millennium.  Flagellants beat themselves mercilessly as they prepare for the end of the world, a medieval Y2K (or Y1K?). 

The film cuts to a beautiful forest, where the young Hildegard travels to a monastery, given to the Church as a gift from her family at a very young age.  She and Jutta, another “young bride,” as the Abbot Kuno (Gerald Alexander Held) calls them, are raised by the magistra, or head nun, studying theology until they are of age to take their vows.  The film then flashes forward thirty years to show Hildegard elected by her sister nuns to the post of magistra.  She teaches the other sisters about medicine and the healing powers of plants and stones, and her chants rise above the others as the most melodic. 

More importantly, Hildegard confesses that she experiences visions of God’s light, an inextinguishable fire that requires her to write what she sees and hears from God.  When the greedy and power-hungry Abbot Kuno learns of her visions, he sees only the glory and prestige (not to mention generous gifts from nobility) that will inevitably grace his monastery and encourages her to share her visions.  The arrival of Richardis von Stade (Hannah Hurtzsprung), a young sister placed under Hildegard’s charge, brings a new vitality to Hildegard and the monastery.  Richardis, with her light-heartedness and contagious joy, resembles everyone’s favorite Hollywood nun, Fraulein Maria from The Sound of Music, and her intense desire to study with Hildegard transforms their relationship into one of the most complex of the film.

Despite some shocking developments within the monastery, the most fascinating and striking moments of the film are Hildegard’s visions.  Von Trotta’s ferocious zooms into Hildegard’s eyes have a Brechtian effect; we are pulled out of the film and forced to question what she could be seeing and if it is an authentic vision.  However, our cruel director denies us the pleasure of sharing in the visions, and we must try to piece together the message she has been asked to convey from God during the few scenes of Hildegard’s dictation of her visions to Richardis.  Not nearly enough screen time is devoted to these visions, drawing our attention to the sheer number of themes that von Trotta attempts to present in her short biopic: envy, greed, power struggles, vanity, selfishness, lust, and spirituality.  The lack of thematic direction at times obscures the narrative and casts a shadow over the stylistic elements that ultimately deserve recognition. 

However, throughout the film, von Trotta constantly calls our attention to the question of feminism or female agency, suggesting that Hildegard, though a medieval nun, is a model feminist, fighting against a patriarchal system to improve the lives of her sisters and to do God’s will.  The strength of the sisters within the monastery is surprising—they work as doctors, read and write books, and even vote on major decisions.  But, at least for von Trotta, there is no question that Hildegard is a true feminist, perhaps even the first feminist.  And as I sat in the theater, in an audience of only a half dozen viewers, I thought about those that wouldn’t be interested in “reading” a movie about a Catholic feminist saint, and I prepared myself for the flak that I most certainly would take from some xenophobic Americans.  After all, von Trotta’s film is no Sister Act.

Written and directed by Margarethe von Trotta; director of photography, Axel Block; edited by Corina Dietz; original music by Christian Heyne and Hildegard von Bingen; production designer, Heike Bauersfeld; produced by Christian Baute, Hengameh Panahi, Manfred Thurau, and Markus Zimmer; released by Zeitgeist Films (USA).  Runtime: 110 minutes.

With: Barbara Sukowa (Hildegard), Hannah Herzsprung (Richardis), Gerald Alexander Held (Abbot Kuno), and  Heino Ferch (Volmar). 

Review by Melissa Cleary

Nowhere Boy

In the sixty-odd year history of modern pop music, there are dozens of artists who have achieved the status of icon or legend, and the most famous names on that list are more globally recognizable than any world leader, but of all those great talents and massive names, I’d say only two acts—The Beatles and Bob Dylan—have transcended that fame to reach another level, a point where the general public can’t even think of them as “people” in the normal sense and whose lives are defined by the images people place around them and not by reality. Other artists came close—Elvis, Michael Jackson, The Rolling Stones, Kurt Cobain and a few more—but they were all too human and too open to the public to reach this level of iconography. Dylan’s case is probably easier to explain as he has spent most of his professional life trying to obscure his past and control his legacy. That’s the reason I’m Not There was such a great film, it had almost nothing to do with the reality of Bob Dylan. It isn’t a biopic, but is instead a study of how we, the public, perceive Dylan. The Beatles are different though. The most popular band of all time means so many different things to so many different people that to tell their whole story at once would be nearly impossible. In my opinion, the best way to study them as human beings is not to sum up their career or to look at them as symbols (as Across the Universe tried and failed to do), but to strip away the legends and try to understand what made those four men into what they became. This last option is exactly what director Sam Taylor-Wood tries to do in her first feature, Nowhere Boy, a look at John Lennon’s life in the few years before the band finally formed. And while the film isn’t perfect, it is a much better-then-average biopic.

The facts of Lennon’s life are, of course, public record and common knowledge among Beatles fans. John (played here by Aaron Johnson, best known as the star of Kick Ass) was raised by his strict but loving aunt Mimi (Kristen Scott Thomas) and his Uncle George, who died in 1955, the beginning of this film. His mother Julia (Anne-Marie Duff) was still a major presence in his life, although their relationship was strained by the fact that she had given him up to her sister. Julia, among other things, was arguably his largest musical influence, giving him his first guitar, teaching him how to play and introducing him to rock and roll. Lennon and some of the other troublemakers in his school eventually formed a band called The Quarrymen, and after a few successful shows, they picked up a new guitarist by the name of Paul McCartney (Thomas Brodie Sangster). Paul’s friend George Harrison soon joins the group (although, unfortunately, his story is, as always, forgotten in all the focus on the John/Paul dynamic), and, after one more tragedy, they finally have their big break (remember, Ringo doesn’t enter until a bit later). Of course there is more to it, and I wish the film had focused on the effects of growing up in post-war England and the various rebel sub-cultures that emerged at the time, but his family relationship and early interactions with his future band-mates are far more important if you’re trying to understand his later life, and they are the focus of this film.

Nowhere Boy opens inside one of John’s dreams. He’s running through the streets, chased by an invisible mob of screaming fans as the opening notes of “A Hard Day’s Night” blare in the background. The movie spends a lot of time trying to explain Lennon’s mindset, and this reference to the greatest film about the Beatles, which comes well before young John picks up a guitar for the first time, shows that he wanted to be famous. This may not seem like a big deal, but if this movie had tried to sanctify Lennon, as most biopics do to their subjects, this dream would not be included. His family issues obviously played a role, but in noting that Lennon wanted to be a star and was not just a victim of the record industry, it rejects some of his saintlier aspects, which makes him a far better human character. In reality, John Lennon was just another kid from Liverpool trying to make it in the rock and roll craze. He wasn’t some wildly charismatic wunderkind, and while Johnson is probably a bit too low key, that aspect of his personality is clear. The two women in his life are the more complex characters, and they required far better performances. Mimi could have been a stereotypically cold and uptight middle class Englishwoman, but Kristen Scott Thomas brings the right degree of warmth and humor to the character so that we can understand why John loved her so much. The film’s most impressive performance though, is that of Anne-Marie Duff. Julia (or at least the Julia portrayed here) was probably a bit mentally ill, and Mrs. Duff does an incredible job of capturing her wild mood swings while not calling too much attention to the semi-Freudian aspects of their relationship that the director and writer clearly hint at. One can’t help but wonder if the vaguely sexual nature of their relationship (which I’d never heard much about before) is somehow related to the twenty-year age difference between Johnson and Taylor-Wood, who have a child together and are currently engaged, something that caused a bit of a stir in the UK during production on the film. Whether they are related or not, it does still make for an interesting aspect of their relationship and an important part of the film.

Most biopics fail because they try to use a single event to explain the complex actions of their subjects. What makes Nowhere Boy different is that the two relationships at the core of the film are both so complex that they make believable catalysts for the parts of John Lennon’s life that we are all aware of (plus it has really good music). Sure, Johnson wouldn’t be my first pick for the role, and I wish more attention had been paid to the atmosphere and the early John-Paul relationship and, despite Taylor-Wood’s background in visual arts, there is nothing particularly inspired in regards to the film’s aesthetic, but this raises the bar for the traditional music biopic by actually presenting the subject as an interesting human being, something films like Ray and Walk The Line were never able to do. If nothing else, this hopefully means the deluge of Beatles biopics that I always kind of expected to see as the surviving members get older (the fact that nobody has tried to make at least a trilogy about them in the sixties surprises me, and yes, you would need that much time to cover the whole story) will try to live up to Nowhere Boy’s level.

-Adam Burnstine

Nowhere Boy is rated R for language and a scene of sexuality.

It will open in Boston on October 15th, 2010.

Directed by Sam Taylor-Wood; written by Matt Greenhalgh; director of photography, Seamus McGarvey; edited by Lisa Gunning; original music by Alison Goldfrapp and Will Gregory; art director, Kimberely Fahey; produced by Robert Bernstein, Kevin Loader and Douglas Rae; distributed by The Weinstein Company; running time: 1 hour 38 minutes.

With: Aaron Johnson (John Lennon), Kristin Scott Thomas (Mimi Smith), Anne-Marie Duff (Julia Lennon), Thomas Brodie Sangster (Paul McCartney), David Morrissey (Bobby Dykins), Josh Bolt (Pete Shotton) and Ophelia Lovibond (Maria).

Howl Interview

I recently took part in a roundtable discussion with Rob Epstein and Jeffrey Friedman, the Oscar-winning directors (Epstein made The Times Of Harvey Milk and they co-directed Common Threads: Stories From The Quilt) of the new film Howl, a multi-faceted drama about the making of Allen Ginsberg’s eponymous poem. The film stars James Franco as the young Allen Ginsberg and features supporting work from Jon Hamm and Jeff Bridges, among others. It opens in limited release in Boston on October 1st.

Question:

One of the striking things about the film for me was the visual style and how the film was structured. In what part of the writing / creative process did you come up with that distinct style?

Jeffrey:

Well we knew at the beginning that we wanted to do something that would be formally challenging and adventurous in a way that would resonate in the way that the poem was challenging and adventurous when it came out. So we started from that point and then we just started looking at the poem from different angles and finding different ways of telling the story. We wanted to understand what went into making the poem, and the creative process, and what Allen had to go through as a person to get to a point where he could write the poem. And we wanted the poem to live on its own in the movie, both as imagination, which we did in the animation, and as performance, which was how it was presented to the world, as the first kind of spoken word performance art. And how the world responded to it and the world it was being put into, which we used the trial for, the obscenity trial.

Rob:

We knew we wanted the film to play in the present tense, rather than do a historical documentary when you are starting from the point of older people looking back on themselves. We wanted that particular moment to play in the present tense. So the film takes place in 1957, and then it flashes back to the early fifties and late forties. The flashbacks are in black and white, and the present tense is in color. Metaphorically, the world transitions from black and white to color when howl is launched into the world and Allen finds his creative voice.

Question:

When did you decide that you wanted to make a film about howl? And what persuaded you to go this route as opposed to a traditional documentary?

Rob:

The project came to us from Allen Ginsberg’s estate; they wanted to do something for the 50th anniversary of the poem. We didn’t quite realize that date, but that date seemed kind of arbitrary both to them and to us in the end, until we found a concept that felt like it was complementary to what the poem was in its day. A concept that felt different and unique from a standard traditional documentary. If we had done a documentary, first of all there was no material from that period that we were depicting, so we would have had to create it anyway. It also felt like you all wouldn’t relate to it the same way if you were to see it as a narrative film. Early on, we showed some documentary ideas to students and it was talking with them that we came to see that we had to find another way to tell the story from documentary. And that was the challenge we set for ourselves.

Jeffrey:

It’s a story about young people, college age guys who were creating this new style of writing, and ended up really having an effect on the culture. But it’s very much an expression of youthful, creative, rebellion that we wanted to capture.

Rob:

So then we just had to set it in a period context, and that’s why the trial seemed like an important element to us, because the trial really helped to contextualize it and set the period.

Question:

But you knew once they came to you that Howl was a material that you definitely wanted to…

Rob:

We knew there was something there, but we didn’t really have any notion of how we were going to approach it. We just knew that this was an important work, and that Ginsberg was an important literary figure, and the rest is a process of discovery, as it is with any project. Then that’s your mission as a creator, to figure out what do you want to say with it.

Question:

Despite the fact that many of the beat generation literary pieces are so important, there have been so few succesful film adaptations of outside of, say, Cronenberg’s Naked Lunch. Why do you think that it’s been so difficult to get them to film?

Rob:

Well it’s difficult to do any film, first of all. And it’s difficult to do period films, so it’s not Hollywood bait. So, it takes someone who feels really passionate and driven to get a film like this made.

Jeffrey:

Finding an approach to it that will feel authentic is a challenge. You mention Naked Lunch, and that was a very audacious film. And it’s an audacious book. But it had to be an audacious film. You can see where it came from, but it’s not the book, it’s something very different. It’s Cronenberg’s vision. But it’s mind blowing. It’s very hard to re-create that world credibly in a literal way, which is how Hollywood does most things.

Question:

The animation sequences were really crazy, and unexpected. What was the thought process behind that. I did read that it was the same illustrator who illustrated his poems, but what made you decide to include it in that way? Do you think that it was almost a paradox because in the film itself there were some lines about you can never translate poetry to prose so how much can you translate it into visuals?

Rob:

The poem exists in so many different ways within the movie; it’s performative, with James Franco as Ginsberg performing the poem, so you have an opportunity to experience it as spoken word. And then it exists as an analysis in the trial, when it’s being presented and deconstructed as evidence. And then we wanted it to live as an experience as well, so the animation to us seemed like a way to create a cinematic experience that you wouldn’t have in any other form. You’re never gonna have that in any other form, so why not? We thought of animated films like Fantasia, we looked at Pink Floyd’s The Wall, where it just takes you into a very trippy experience of somebody else’s mind creation. We set it up that it’s emanating from Allen, Allen’s the source, but then you kind of come into a whole other experience of it.

Jeffrey:

We tried to make it elusive but not literal, so that the audience can have their own experience of the worlds as they’re watching the images. But it’s a specific vision, and we thought of it as an adaptation, the way you adapt a novel. You have to make the characters concrete and you have to make things concrete that people have their own ideas about.

Rob:

And an opportunity to bring to life some abstract ideas like Moloch. That we could create a narrative parable about Moloch it seemed like an opportunity.

Question:

Since the poem’s all about finding your own meaning about the work, when’s the first time you read Howl, and what did it mean to you? Working with it every day, did it change throughout the process what it meant?

Rob:

I read it when I was in high school, but I didn’t have any great connection to it. It’s come to mean something much more to me in later life. And I continue to find new things from it, and new ideas within it. One of the reasons why I love the animation particularly is that there are so many ideas in that alone, so many new things to always be discovered about the poem and ideas within it. And themes with in it. And the themes just seem to get more and more resonant. Allen talks about prophecy in the movie, and he in his life talked about how he intended Howl to be a time bomb that would go off for different generations at different points, and I feel like we’re at one of those points right now, and there are so many themes within Howl that I think people can find contemporary resonance with. And I hope they do.

Jeffrey:

I read it in high school, and I also didn’t probably understand most of it. But I got the sense of it, I got the feeling of it. There was something liberating about it. And I knew that there was something groundbreaking.

Question:

How collaborative were the cast members? Did they do their own research?

Rob:

They did. Mary Louise Parker found out that Gail Potter was a blonde. We had no idea. She insisted that she have a blonde wig. Cause there were no pictures of Gail Potter anywhere—she plays Gail Potter, the English teacher witness—so she had a very clear notion of what Gail Potter looked like, and we let her go with it. And James, certainly, did a lot of his own research. We provided him with a lot of research material but he read all the biographies on Ginsberg, and over the course of a year, did a tremendous amount of research on his own. Allesandra Novola, the character he played, was the only living witness. The only witness from the trial who’s still alive, so we had a chance to meet with him, Luther Nichols, and Alessandra had a chance to talk with him before the shoot.

Jeffrey:

James did the most research, obviously.

Rob:

Jack Ehrlich’s pocket square is the real pocket square.

Jeffrey:

Toned down from real life, actually.

Rob:

As documentary filmmakers, our instinct was to do a lot of research. We had volumes of photographs of every situation, and all the departments worked from those.

Jeffrey:

And we looked at films from the period, we wanted to find styles for each of the sections, so we looked at courtroom dramas for the courtroom scenes and we looked at Beat films from the 50s: Pull My Daisy, a Robert Frank film, where you can actually see Ginsberg and Keroauc; how they move. There’s a film by Shirley Clarke called Portrait of Jason which is just this portrait of this one amazing character, this black queen hustler in a room and he’s just monologuing for the entire film and it’s mesmerizing. So we were very inspired by that. What else did we look at? Photos from the period. All of the flashback scenes were inspired by photos that Allen took or were taken of Allen.

Rob:

Even within the movie there’s some real documentary evidence. On the set, the photos of his parents are Allen’s real parents. The real Carl Solomon.

Question:

Was his estate helpful with that?

Rob:

Very helpful, yeah.

Jeffrey:

And they were mesmerized by James’ performance. People who were close to Allen came to the set and they just couldn’t believe it. They were just stunned when they saw it. We were watching on the monitors and you could just see, they were like “that’s Allen.”

Question:

How collaborative was that process filming James doing the different scenes and stuff?

Rob:

It’s very collaborative and very directorial I mean there’s a point which the actor really needs to trust you as an observer to really make judgments about how things are going, and you have to really give that to the actor.

Jeffrey:

We had a year to work with James, which is a real luxury. He signed onto the project before we had financing, and came to San Francisco on his own dime to work with us. We were in New York on another project and we spent a day with him and did some camera tests. We really had time to go through the script line by line and talk about what it meant and where it was coming from, and who he was. He really had time to get that into his being.

Rob:

He came up with idea of pushing his ears out so they looked more like Ginsberg. He was hosting Saturday Night Live and he had a picture of the real Allen Ginsberg on the mirror while they were making him up for SNL and the make-up artist suggested that we push out his ears more. It worked.

Question:

When I think of the beat generation it’s like bee bop, jazz, this very loud kind of like John Coltrane style. There wasn’t really a lot of that in the film, and I was wondering why you made that choice, and why the score, particularly during the animated sequences, tended to be heavy on classical music? Was this your choice, or did the decision come from Carter Burwell (who wrote the film’s music)?

Rob:

When we approached Carter Burwell, who we’re big fans of and who we’ve worked with before on another movie of ours (The Celluloid Closet), he said, “if you want a jazz score I’m not the right guy.”. And we said well, we want you. And then we started talking about his notion of what the score would be, and it seemed like the right take, which is that the voice is the jazz, the performance is the jazz, and the music just needed to be the underscore to that. So we wanted to go counter-punctual to that and have it be more of an understated counterpoint and let the voice be the music.

Question:

If Allen Ginsberg were alive what do you think he would of thought of the film?

Jeffrey:

I think he would have loved the casting.

Rob:

I think he would have loved the animation. I think he would have dug it, the whole thing.

Jeffrey:

Yeah I mean I think he would have appreciated the risks that we were taking.

Question:

My favorite part of the movie was the flashbacks, and I think that you were really on point with the awkwardness of that age, when you’re in your twenties. It some movies it’s not like that. It’s not that easy to make James Franco look awkward.

Jeffrey:

I know, I know. That first scene we had to tell him not to kiss so good. He said “Ah, I’m too good, huh?” And we said tone it down, you’re not supposed to be comfortable kissing that girl.

Rob:

We also did trick him. All those flashback scenes were improv, which was really fun to do it that way. The scene of him and Jack on the park bench when he’s reading Jack his poetry and Jack thinks its garbage. We thought oh, we’ll never use the dialogue, we’ll never use it.

Jeffrey:

The scene where he gets in bed with Peter, that was a really awkward scene to film. We had to try different things and James eventually came up with the idea of something really playful and fun and it was great.

Question:

Now that you’ve done this feature film, are you looking forward to doing more of that, or documentaries, or just whatever the material lends itself to?

Rob:

Well both, definitely the material is important, but we had a great time doing this film and we do want to do more feature films. We had a really great time with the actors, and the crew. You know, there’s so many things that are the same, but so many things that are different. We’ve always, even with our documentaries, thought of ourselves as storytellers first and foremost. Not so much documentarians, but really story tellers, so crossing back and forth doesn’t feel that strange to us. We’ll be doing both.

Question:

On your IMDB page it said that you have Lovelace in the works. Is that still happening?

Jeffrey:

It’s still in development!

Rob:

It’s not the Lindsay Lohan one though. There are two Lovelace projects so we’ll see which one actually gets made first, but yes we are.

Jeffrey:

There were two Ginsberg projects when we started this one.

Rob:

And there were two “Milk”s, when they were making “Milk.”

Question:

Did you guys have a favorite moment in the movie?

Jeffrey:

There was a moment when we were filming when we knew it was just a moment, and it was when James was performing the poem and does the whole section about Carl Solomon and just works up to a crescendo. We could just see in the performance that all of the back story, all of Allen’s back story, was there in the performance. I think that was when we felt happiest and proudest. And that’s what you live for. In any movie, whether it be documentary or feature, you’re always looking for those moments where it’s happening live right then and it’s getting caught on film and you know you got it.

Question:

It must have been cool to, instead of search and search and find it in an archive, you actually got to create it.

Rob:

Yeah, that was really exciting.

Jeffrey:

Instead of trying to draw it out of a real person.

Rob:

When you’re doing an interview, you’re taking a person through their own experience, and you’re trying to get them to experience it as they’re telling it.

Jeffrey:

So it was just really great to work with actors who were just trained to give you what you want, you know? You just have to communicate it well.

Question:

What role did Gus Van Sant have in this film as the Executive Producer?

Rob:

We finished the screenplay right around the time that they were in San Francisco shooting Milk. Gus is a friend, and I had a relationship to Milk from my film The Times of Harvey Milk. We asked Gus to read the script, and he liked it a lot, and we said would you come on as executive producer and he said well, if you think it’ll help. We said we think it’ll help. The first thing we asked him was did he have any suggestions for the part of Allen Ginsberg, and he said, “I think James Franco would be someone to consider.” He asked James if he’d be interested, James said he would be, he read the script, we then met with James. In that first meeting, which went well, we learned a lot about his interests, where he was coming from, that he himself was a student of literature. He’d been reading the beats since he was fourteen. He was exactly the age Allen was when he wrote the poem, so he felt a real connection to the part. We had looked at all of James’ work, most especially the James Dean story that he did for TV, where he played James Dean. And we saw that it was not just a characterization of James Dean, that it was a whole deep portrayal of him. So we just got really lucky and fortunate.

Jeffrey:

James said he always knew he’d do a Beat movie, but he’d always figured he’d play Kerouac. I think he was kind of tickled that we asked him to play Ginsberg, because he really was a Ginsberg fan.

Question:

Do you think that for our generation, there’s anything like Howl?

Rob:

You never know where their going to emerge. Maybe film, maybe digital art, it could be a whole other language now. Hopefully people find this inspirational, I hope. But you never know, I think that’s what makes artists and political figures great. They’re so of their own time. And then that becomes timeless. That’s what Allen was about, that’s what Harvey Milk was about. They emerge from the circumstance of the times in which they live and express something about those times. We’ll see what it is from your generation.

Question:

What’s it like co-directing, co-writing?

Jeffrey:

It’s kind of like this. We just pass it back and forth. We agree on an approach, and then we work together to get what we’re looking for. It’s something we’ve been doing for a long time, so we have a lot of short hand.

Rob:

Sometimes it requires doing it together and sometimes it’s going off and doing it individually and reconvening.

Question:

Do you disagree about anything?

Rob:

Yeah, we do. We have to argue stuff out.

Jeffrey:

That usually makes us find a better solution.

-Adam Burnstine

Howl

“I saw the best minds of my generation destroyed by madness…” Thus marks the beginning of Allen Ginsberg’s “Howl,” arguably the most famous American poem of the post-war era. Discovering this poem has been a vital moment in the lives of so many so-called “angel-headed hipsters” over the last fifty years that it hardly seems surprising that someone has finally tried to make a film out of it. With the exception of Cronenberg’s wild adaptation of Naked Lunch, films based on beat generation works have usually met with mixed success (that being said, I will still be there on opening day for Walter Salles’ currently-filming adaptation of On The Road next year), and that trend sadly continues with Howl, from famed documentarians Rob Epstein (The Times Of Harvey Milk and Common Threads: Stories From The Quilt) and Jeffrey Friedman (who co-directed Common Threads). Howl is not a bad film by any means; it just doesn’t add anything particularly interesting to its source. There are some great performances and some nice imagery, but I can’t imagine anyone walking out of the theater with any particularly new knowledge of the poem or Ginsberg himself.
Ginsberg is played by the excellent-as-always James Franco, who perfectly captures many of the poet’s mannerisms. Franco and the other actors bring a realistic sense of strung-out awkwardness to the beat writers that is missing in Jack Kerouac’s ultra-cool portrayals of the same group. The film is divided into a few continuously intercutting sections. First is a black and white version of Ginsberg’s famous first reading of the poem In San Francisco in 1955. This is followed by an animated adaptation of the poem itself, flashbacks to the time surrounding the poem’s creation, a series of interviews with Ginsberg, taken from actual transcripts, and a portrayal of the obscenity trial that Lawrence Ferlinghetti faced after publishing the poem, in which his lawyer Jake Ehrlich (Jon Hamm) struck a major blow for free speech. And somehow they cover all of this in less than 90 minutes, which is ultimately the film’s biggest problem. None of these individual parts ever really come together into a cohesive whole. The trial scenes are a commentary on the literary worth of the poem mixed with some basic commentary on the need for free speech, but the simple fact that this film exists proves the literary worth of “Howl” and the free speech arguments are hurt by their lack of development. The interviews are the best parts of Franco’s performance, but they make it seem too much like a documentary (note the directors’ backgrounds) and add little narrative or emotional depth to the flashbacks, which are the real heart of the film.
If anything, I’d say this film works best as an introduction to the poem, as evidenced by the two most interesting parts of the story: the animation and the flashbacks. The animation isn’t particularly great, and at times it is far too literal in how it portrays the “story” of the poem, but other than those few over-literal moments, the animation makes a wonderful visual accompaniment to Franco’s voice. For the early parts of the poem, the animation is accompanied by classical music, which works very well at creating a coherent mood, but later the music switches to something that sounds more like post-rock, and while the music itself, composed by the Coen Brothers’ usual composer, Carter Burwell, is still pretty good, the mood seems off, and it made me wonder why the film contains so little jazz, even though that music so defines the beats. Getting back on point, creating a literalized visual landscape for a poem that provides such a difficult description of America seems like an incredibly complex undertaking, and the directors here have probably done as good a job as can be expected. In truth though, it’s the flashbacks that provide a greater understanding of the true meaning behind the poem. We get to see Allen’s life with Jack Kerouac, who inspired him to write, Neal Cassady, his first gay lover, Carl Solomon, the man Ginsberg met in a mental asylum who inspired “Howl” and Peter Orlovsky, his life-long lover. These are the men who inspired the acts described in the poem, particularly in part one, and the film’s best moments are the small snippets we get of these relationships.
Ultimately, the film never moves far enough beyond simply explaining the poem. I believe this has a lot to do with the directors’ backgrounds in documentary filmmaking because in the end, Howl feels more like an educational experience than an artistic one (for a truly excellent doc on the beats, watch Chuck Workman’s 1999 film The Source). However, that’s not to say this is a film without some merits. The performances are truly excellent. Ginsberg’s ever-present thick glasses distort Franco’s eyes in a way that makes him look half-mad throughout, and the actor plays off of that madness very well in the interview sequence. There have been other good portrayals of Ginsberg in films past (David Cross in I’m Not There is the first to come to mind), but none have captured his essence quite like Franco. He probably deserves some sort of award-season recognition and Jon Hamm shines as Ehrlich, although, to be completely fair, the character is not exactly a far departure from the equally cool and persuasive Don Draper. David Strathairn brings a degree of depth and humor to the prosecutor, who could have easily just been a stock evil lawyer. Jeff Daniels, Mary-Louise Parker and Treat Williams all have enjoyable extended cameos as “expert” witnesses in the trial, either arguing for or against the poem’s literary merit. I was also impressed with some of the film’s aesthetic merits, particularly during the flashbacks and the reading of the poem, which tried to capture the same general look as Ginsberg’s famous photographs of the other beat writers and, not inconsequentially, John Cassavetes’ Shadows, arguably the best film ever made about the beat generation. The interviews are in color and tend to be shot from relatively close-up, capturing Franco’s face in detail as he constantly moves across the room. This technique provides a level of energy to these scenes that may otherwise have been missing. Based on these aspects and my love of the poem and most things beat, I can’t tell you not to see the film, but it’s still too short and too shallow to live up to the potential of its concept and source.
-Adam Burnstine
Howl is currently unrated but contains nothing really offensive.
Howl will be released in Boston on October 1, 2010.
Written and directed by Rob Epstein and Jeffrey Friedman; director of photography, Edward Lachman, edited by Jake Pushinsky, original music by Carter Burwell; produced by Elizabeth Redleaf, Christine Kunewa Walker, Rob Epstein, Jeffrey Friedman and Gus Van Sant; distributed by Oscilloscope Pictures. Running time: 1 hour, 25 minutes.
With: James Franco (Allen Ginsberg), Jon Hamm (Jake Ehrlich), David Strathairn (Ralph McIntosh), Jeff Daniels (David Kirk), Bob Balaban (Judge Clayton Horn), Aaron Tveit (Peter Orlovsky) and Mary-Louise Parker (Gail Potter).

DVD Review Modern Times

modern-timesOver the summer, when fresh 35mm prints of some of Charlie Chaplin’s best films started touring the country and rumors that perhaps Criterion might get into the Tramp business, I excitedly shared the news with a friend, knowing that he was both a fan and someone who taught the films.  I expected mutual enthusiasm, but when I broke the news he shrugged, pointed at his gleaming Image box set and said it couldn’t get much better. Doubts clouded my expectations, but I should have known better.  Today we have a Criterion Collection version of Modern Times, and it is wonderful.

Underappreciated at the time of its release, nearly a decade after the advent of sound films, Modern Times is the farewell to the Tramp, and Chaplin’s farewell to sound.  Yet it plays with the notion of sound, using the Tramp’s wordlessness, mastery of pantomime, and the world’s own painful transition into modern life as a perfect foil for this last gasp of silence.  “Never mind the words,” the Gamin yells out at Chaplin in the final song sequence, giving the Tramp one last opportunity to show that a story could be told, and brilliantly, without speech.

As much as the film is about these transitions, it is of course about the Tramp as an individual lost within them.  Always stuck inside the machinations of society and forever breaking its rules, nowhere is this struggle more apparent and poignant than in Modern Times. And so we see Chaplin as factory worker, as accidental striker, and as prisoner.  We see him dream of a better life and wind up in a shack.  We see his whimsy played out on a pair of roller skates and his frustrations drag him into the giant spinning wheels of the factory.  He is a cog in the wheels, sometimes playing along, sometimes getting caught in the gears.

Of course there are the set pieces, the wonderful displays of Chaplin’s ability to dance for us in front of and from behind the camera.  My personal favorite is the roller skating scene, when the Tramp’s new job as a night watchman gives him the opportunity to roam the department store at night.  This sweet, all too brief ballet takes place right in the middle of a cross section of a dream.  Surrounded by the comforts that everyone wants and lacks, Charlie just wants to take this moment of whimsy to float.

Included in the dvd are a great many extras.  Commentaries and essays, documentaries and behind the scenes images all add to the experience.  We can learn how Chaplin’s nearly two year long journey around the world after the release of Limelight affected his life and his art, infusing politics into his films such as had never been seen.  We can catch of glimpse of the secretive director through Jeffrey Vance’s excellent deconstruction of what has been left to us, the still photographs of the production.  And we can learn the secrets.  Though is was a little sad to see how Chaplin hover over that scary second floor balcony in the department store, it was still great to see.

The greatest films can be seen, interpreted, put back on the shelf, seen again, and reinterpreted once more.  Modern Times is such a film; it remains relevant, showing us all these years later that the factory still carries us along as part of a whole, an experience that can be maddening.  It exudes an energy that can be provided only by a master, each and every set piece a chance for Chaplin’s skills to move us with his own playful movement.

-Rob Ribera

Inside Job

inside jobCDOs.  AAA ratings.  Derivatives.  These are just a few financial phrases that Matt Damon simplifies for audiences of average Americans in Charles Ferguson’s documentary Inside Job.   The film carefully walks the line between cinema and power point presentation as it attempts to explain the 2008 economic crisis and—more importantly—point the finger of blame.  Ferguson (No End in Sight) is bold and ambitious, opening his film with the daring statement: “This is how it happened.”  With such a claim, Inside Job opens itself to sharp criticism and debate, but this only comes from the Wall Street Wiseguys that the film blames for the current economic situation.  The documentary proves to be a comprehensive, although essayistic, account of the financial crisis. 

Ferguson neatly organizes his film into five parts, each presenting one aspect of the economic breakdown, as if writing a thesis paper.  While this contributes to the film’s pedagogical tone (think college Economics 101 lecture), the film’s style is extremely practical when explaining complex financial terms to an audience who may have never had an economics course or (let’s be honest) probably slept through it in college.  Damon’s narration makes the technical terms more easily digestible, and the graphics and flow charts give us something to look at as we pretend that Jason Bourne actually understands the phrases he is describing (it becomes clear early on that Damon is just a name to associate with the film, neither a character nor a commentator).  The interviews with various figures from the worlds of Wall Street and financial consulting sufficiently introduce us to our cast of heroes and villains.  The more expensive the suit, the more evil the man.  Those who refuse to participate in an interview are the guiltiest of all. 

Despite these clichés of the documentary conventions, Inside Job does an admirable and refreshing job of remaining politically neutral—Ferguson blames all presidential administrations for their passivity regarding the nation’s economy.  Instead, the director faults a “Wall Street Government” for neglecting to hold America’s financial interests at heart, explaining that every administration from Reagan to Obama has appointed financial felons to high government positions.  This move on Ferguson’s part allows us to look beyond anti-conservative or anti-liberal sentiments and focus on the larger issue: the corruption of Wall Street. 

Ferguson seems to enjoy detailing the scandals of Wall Street bankers a bit too much, including montages of fraud and money laundering, as well as testimony from a New York prostitute who claims to have faked (wait for it) invoices for some of the top investment bankers in the industry.  One of the more interesting interviews is with a therapist, who also claims to have high-ranking investment bankers as clients, which calls attention to the psychology of Wall Street bankers (so greed is a mental illness now?).  But despite the shocking interviews and staggering figures, the documentary lacks one very important ingredient: a victim. 

Arguably, Ferguson intended for us to see ourselves as the victims, losing our homes, pensions, and lunch money to the Wall Street bullies.  However, the average American citizen receives hardly any screen time.  Besides numerous shots of foreclosed homes and a brief interview with a Tent City resident, the film denies us a character to play the role of representative.  In an interesting decision, Ferguson interviews a non-English-speaking immigrant to relate her own story of foreclosure and victimization.  While we sympathize with her situation, she is not exactly the illustration of the typical American citizen, and the film carries our thoughts to other hot-button issues, which certainly is not the director’s intention.  Instead, a more relatable “character” would have made the film more personal and emotional, a pleasant change from the informative, yet dull, facts and figures that dominate the documentary. 

Ultimately, Inside Job does not motivate audiences to write their Congressmen or protest in Washington D.C.  Moreover, the documentary does little in the way of offering resolutions; Ferguson is suddenly vague in this department, even though I doubt anyone truly expects him to singlehandedly solve the economic crisis.  Ferguson’s decision to omit thoughtful suggestions for financial repair prevents the film from transcending from rant session to moving documentary cinema.  Still, the pleasure (if one could call it that) in viewing Inside Job is in screening the documentary in a theater setting.  There is something reassuring about tsking, nodding, and sighing as a collective that makes me feel as if debt and unemployment are not in my near future.  But, as Misters Bernanke, Paulson, and Summers demonstrate, maybe I should get a job on Wall Street to avoid these economic threats instead.

 

Directed by Charles Ferguson; written by Chad Beck and Adam Bolt; director of photography, Svetlana Cyetko and Kalyanee Mam; edited by Chad Beck and Adam Bolt; original music by Alex Heffes; produced by Charles Ferguson, Jeffrey Lurie, Kalyanee Mam, Audrey Marrs, Anna Moot-Levin, and Christina Weiss Lurie; released by Sony Pictures Classics.  

 

Review by Melissa Cleary

Review: Rapt

Ask any specialist in schadenfreude: giants laid low make fruitful subjects, and what better time than 2009 for the movies to put industrial bigwigs through trials by fire? Lucas Belvaux’s Rapt of that year, shown July 18 at the Museum of Fine Arts’ French Film Festival, is based on the 1978 kidnapping for ransom of the Belgian businessman Baron Empain.  During his two-month captivity, the potentate lost the sympathy of the public because of the exposure of his extramarital affairs and extravagant gambling.  But unlike the press in real life, Rapt withholds judgment on its hapless protagonist.  The real business at hand is to deprive him totally of freedom and dignity and see what’s left–and, more pointedly, what society makes of him.  Rapt’s strength turns out to be its ability to contrast what we see of his ordeal with how his family, colleagues, and enemies perceive him.  

 

At first, I doubted the film’s potential for reaching psychological depths worthy of such a subject.  The opening scenes drum through at the pace of a television special.  Stanislas Graff (Yvan Attal) is at his complacent zenith: conducting business as the chairman of a wealthy conglomerate, visiting his mistress in the afternoon, and losing 50,000 euros at poker, only to wake up the next morning to kiss his wife and daughters good-bye.  

 

These transgressions are laid out in clipped, percussive scenes that stress the transience of his good luck.  Then he’s seized from his car, handcuffed, blindfolded and locked in a trunk by masked men.  Having hurtled through the exposition and the start of the drama, the film doesn’t pause to linger on the first days of his captivity.  Instead, it flashes between episodes of his increasing degradation and the mobilization to retrieve him. His fellow shareholders react to the abduction primarily as a potential financial disaster.  Particularly suspect is the dispassionate financier Peyrac (André Marcon), a resourceful negotiator who treats Graff’s disappearance as some kind of impropriety.  

 

Belvaux seeks out every cold heart in Paris, from politicians outraged at the discovery of Graff’s reckless spending, to the victim’s own exquisitely callous mother (Françoise Fabian).  Among these rather broadly drawn characters, we find a few complicated enough for our sympathy: certainly his daughters, and above all his wife, who suffers the most from the press’s gleeful exploitation of Graff’s past affairs: Anne Consigny once again conveys the anguish of maintaining a superficial bourgeois calm.  

 

Meanwhile, the film evolves into as bleak, prolonged, and unsentimental a depiction of imprisonment as I’ve seen in the movies.  A certain toughness is often granted even to antiheroes in movies, but not here. The audience can’t take comfort in the slightest defiance on the hostage’s part.  Attal (nominated for a César for this performance) portrays Graff as a man so afraid of provoking further terrors that he can hardly speak or move, but whose humiliation is all too easy to read on his face.  

 

The mustachioed main kidnapper Le Marseillais (Gérard Meylan) unctuously doles out small comforts along with brutality, a combination more disturbing than simpleminded cruelty.  Some of Rapt’s most effective scenes show how the prisoner cautiously accepts his captor’s spurious kindness even as he dreads further trauma.  It’s hard to stop a mental wince as Le Marseillais, amiably chatting like a doctor to a nervous patient, fastens a chain around Graff’s neck after the hostage has been allowed to bathe.  

 

Alas for reviewer discretion: the most original part of Rapt is its ending, so rather than neglect it I will resort here to a Spoiler Alert.  Graff, like the real-life Baron Empain, survives his two months of torment.  Here you might expect some kind of redemption, perhaps a greater self-awareness for the victim.  In fact, Graff doesn’t feel remorse.  The general hunger for his repentance enrages him. He has recovered his ambition and is determined to scrabble back to power.

 

When Peyrac warns him that the shareholders will no longer accept him as a legitimate leader, Graff cynically contemplates feigning contrition to the public. Feed the press a story about how his ordeal purified him and made him into a new man, he thinks, and the people will forget his former dissolute lifestyle.  He hasn’t yet realized that he has been fatally tarnished in the public eye.  

 

Worse, he has returned to a family furious with him for his hitherto concealed double life.  His wife and daughters demand explanations while he expects their unquestioning compassion.  The familial scenes push Graff further and further into a state of frustrated isolation.  He is forced to cope alone with his nightmares, memories and unbroken anxiety.  

 

Rapt refutes the spiritually purifying power of suffering.  A terrible experience can set a man apart from luckier members of society, yet teach him nothing about himself.  This idea is so grim, and so unsatisfying to an audience spoiled on catharsis, it’s no wonder that most screenwriters avoid it.  

 

But this idea carries a humanistic implication more profound than most atonement dramas.  The helpful MFA bulletin’s summary of the film claims that “the viewer is invited to consider whether the unfortunate man deserves his fate or is worthy of redemption.” To me, the question is moot.  Stanislas Graff’s suffering has nothing to do with what he does or doesn’t deserve.  What matters is that imprisonment has changed him in ways that no one, not even his aggrieved family, can really understand or appreciate. I’d go as far as saying that Rapt is an exercise in empathy.  The protagonist’s faults may be hard to forgive, but what’s more frightening in the end: one man’s selfish recklessness, or society’s appetite for his mortification?

 

–Julia Zelman

 

Written and directed by Lucas Belvaux. With Yvan Attal, Anne Consigny, André Macon, Alex Descas. Director of photography, Pierre Milon; editor, Danielle Anezin; Production designer, Frédérique Belvaux. Running time 2 hours 5 minutes.

Review: Hadewijch

I’ll admit it: I was raring to see Hadewijch because the story of a girl too scarily religious for a convent sounded right up my alley.  I was expecting something satirical but empathetic, like Luis Buñuel on a kinder day.  But Bruno Dumont, the director of the 2009 film soon to be playing at the Museum of Fine Arts, is more likely to evoke comparisons with his countryman Robert Bresson; like the maker of Diary of a Country Priest and the nihilistic The Devil, Probably, Dumont may have a sense of irony about religion, but he doesn’t brook much laughter over it.  

 

These directors share a certain quietness of approach, letting their characters exist without forcing the viewer to judge.  Yet, in their worlds, the desire, loneliness and ecstasy inextricable with spirituality are so overwhelming that the viewer cannot find the distance and calm needed for humor.  So even when the fervent young protagonist, stark naked, looks her little pet dog in the eye, whispers a benediction over him, and makes the sign of the cross, it’s more ghastly and sad than funny.

 

The title protagonist of Hadewijch–her given name is Céline, but she has adopted the name of a thirteenth-century Dutch mystic for convent life–has taken to extreme ascetism: in cold weather, she hunches in the convent’s garden with no coat; she refuses food and, when a superior presses a piece of bread into her hands, she tears it into crumbs and feeds it to the birds. There’s a perverse sensuality in these early scenes.  We hear Céline’s shivery breathing as she crosses the cavernous, mossy forest to the monastery, and later, the prayers she whispers alone in her room.  

 

The nuns, unsettled, push Céline into the real world, where they hope that she will “find herself.”  At first, the young woman seems to have adapted to Paris.  She almost immediately falls in with an unemployed young Muslim man, Yassine, who lives in the city’s poor suburbs.  She seems to embody a certain Christian mystical ideal in her interactions with Yassine: she’s kind and refuses to judge, qualities that set her apart from her ultra-wealthy parents.  Her matter-of-fact declaration “I love Christ” is an expression of deep personal feeling, not a conversion attempt.

 

But Céline’s beliefs are unorthodox to say the least, and the surety she places in them approaches psychosis.  She does not think that Christ is omnipresent.  By leaving the convent she has lost him and she misses him, misses his “body.” She seems so bereft of love of a man that she has deified it, to the point where no mundane relationship can appease her.  

 

Once Yassine, though respectful of her religion, discovers that he can’t compete against Christ for Céline’s passion, the uneasy tone of the film tenses further. We realize that the protagonist’s emergence from the convent doesn’t just bring her into conflict with secular multiculturalism. Hadewijch concerns the potentially catastrophic diversion of sexual urges to religious ends: the clash of the sexes more than that of Islam and the West.

 

The threat of rape, never directly implied, surfaces in the looks of the men around Céline as she wanders alone at the outskirts of the city.  Yet here Dumont puts the audience in an acutely uneasy position. When showing the naïve future nun walking past a group of roughly friendly but staring men in front of a cement high-rise, the director knows his audience will sense the frightening subtext.  

 

On the other hand, Yassine’s resentment over Céline’s rejection stems not only from her refusal itself, but also from the contempt he perceives directed toward an Arab man with a white woman friend. He’s still lonely, and he must endure the same prejudice as if he were really dating her.

 

If this film had been made by, say, Michael Haneke, the combination of observed racism and implied sexual threat might be another tool to make a white, middle-class audience feel vaguely guilty. “Am I worried for Céline because I’m a racist?” such a sensitive bourgeois might wonder.

 

Dumont plays a more complex game, because the danger here compounds more than sexuality and racial tension. Céline’s longing for Christ meets Yassine’s brother Nassir, an ardent Muslim, and decides to place her spiritual hope in his hands. Nassir’s religious beliefs are inseparable from his politics and his influence transforms Céline’s need for transcendence into something terrifying.  

 

I frankly find Hadewijch hard to judge as a film.  Dumont’s style is so beautifully detached that it’s difficult to say whether he’s presenting us with strawman insights.  The young woman’s physical desire for Jesus may be startling and even convincing, but how exactly does it lead her to terrible acts?  The script implies that Céline’s loneliness stems from her father’s apathy, but why has this translated into fanatical Catholicism?  The film drops heavy hints, but never begins to explain its complexities.

 

The surprisingly lyrical ending, which takes place at the beloved convent, seems to carry a humanistic message, but could also be interpreted as introducing a Christlike figure to the plot at the last minute.  If that’s so, the final scene adds an allegorical element that simplifies Céline’s deep psychological wounds.

 

Still, I’m hard-pressed to think of a recent film with such a lovely close-up as the one that Dumont holds on Céline’s face as she hears her beloved Christ’s presence in a Bach quartet. You may have to return to Bresson to find such a portrait of rapture.

 

–Julia Zelman